Crossing the border: memories about the exodus to Venezuela. The River Arauca’s case: boys, girls and adolescents

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Niños, hijos de una familia desplazada, jugando en el río Sarare, Guasdualito, estado Apure

Boys, girls and adolescents in the country are “the most weak and vulnerable victims of the forced displacement among the overall population displaced by the country’s armed conflict” (Corte, 2008-b). As a result of this displacement, the harmonious and integral development of children and adolescents is damaged and their right to be protected against all ways of neglect, abuse, bullying, child exploitation, kidnapping, military recruitment and discrimination suffers multiple threats (CFWI1 & UNHCR2, 2010, page 12). However, very little has been established about the vulnerability and the affections suffered by this population group, victims of the cross-border exodus.

On the occasion of the armed conflict and the social-political and economic violence, thousands of boys, girls and adolescents have had no choice but to cross the national borders, alone or with someone else, looking for protection or a refuge (Cáritas from Venezuela, interview, San Antonio, 2013; Guasdualito, 2013). In many other cases, they were born outside Colombia of victims of the cross-border exodus and grew up in households that transmitted them a “feeling of danger and threat that remains in their parents” (UNHCR, 2008, page 78). So, not only the child and adolescent population is a direct victim of the cross-border exodus but also it is affected by its former generation’s exodus.

Unrecognized child and adolescent population as refugee

In fact, the alarming unregistered refugee population in Venezuela has caused that the migratory status of thousands of boys, girls and adolescents living in the neighboring country is still indefinite, since their parents or guardians have not been recognized as refugees. This recognition is a determining factor in these boys’, girls’ and adolescents’ growth, since otherwise, they could be deported back to Colombia, and consequently, they would have to change their educational and community environments. Therefore, children of fathers and mothers who lack some sort of document proving their refugee condition or the provisional document for the refugee application, show a greater situation of weakness and helplessness (UNHCR, 2008).

Even though education in Venezuela is free, school-aged Colombian boys, girls and adolescents living in Venezuela as a consequence of their forced displacement do not have access to it, in many cases due to their displaced condition. It is difficult for those who do not have the refugee status or the applying refugee status to get the access to education and the validation of their studies in Colombia. Moreover, they find almost impossible to be promoted to the next educational level they are supposed to enter, that is, from the high school, and much less, to get the high school degree if they do not have the regular documentation that certificates their status (SJR, June 2nd, 2013, domestic and school violence damages Tachira’s boys’, girls’ and adolescents’ rights).

As a result of this situation, those boys, girls and adolescents living near the frontline have to go to Colombian schools, which implies they have to cross the border everyday. This a particularly evident situation on the River Tachira border, where boys, girls and adolescents, living in San Antonio or Ureña, Venezuela, study at Cúcuta’s schools. Because of their refugee status (or of being in the refugee application process), these people and their families are in constant danger of being forbidden to go back to Colombia and are continuously exposed to the control of Venezuela´s authorities (Ramírez, 2013 y Focus Group of Historical Memory, San Antonio, 2013).

Growing up in poor refuge conditions

Additionally, boys, girls and adolescents are affected by other types of damages caused by their refugee status (UNHCR, 2008). Living in a foreign country, they have still a smaller chance of being understood and of receiving help regarding the forced displacement drama they have suffered. Therefore, the emotional and pedagogic recovery of under-age people with a trauma has become a difficult process. In effect, the worst damage for some displaced mothers has been that caused to their children by the cross-border exodus:

  • The problem of moving from Colombia with children is that they suffer traumas from that situation. And those marks never disappear (a young, female refugee applicant, Focus Group of Historical Memory, Guasdalito, 2013).

  • For children, it has been very hard for two reasons: on the one hand because they already had many school and church friends; on the other hand, because they had to separate from their fathers, and that was very, very hard that school authorities warned me that children began to show aggressive behavior at school and they refused to do the homework. So, in that case, it was the displacement what left traumas in my children and one cannot do anything to solve it. But traumas really remain in children’s mind (a grown, female refugee applicant, Focus Group of Historical Memory, Guasdalito, 2013).

The situation on the River Arauca is worrying since boys, girls and adolescents have been particularly affected by the sexual violence. This has been a reason for worrying for people from Arauca and a reason for fear from parents who had to flee to protect their children from this sexual abuse. As it has been widely reported, acts of sexual violence to the child and adolescent population from this district, especially to children from Tame, has been provoked by members of illegal armed group and also members of the Armed Forces from the Colombian State 99.

Children who do not have psychosocial support may not either complete their studies or overcome the traumas produced by the armed conflict and the emotional and material losses. As a result of this, children tend to sink into real weakness and to be more prone to be a victim again and to fall in the hands of gangs or to be recruited by armed groups, which perpetuate the chains of revenge and illegality. As noted by the Constitutional Court of Colombia, boys, girls and young people living in Venezuela are more frequently exposed to child labor exploitation, sexual slavery and poverty (Corte, 2008,b).

On the other hand, both their immediacy and the building of their future living projects are also affected by the obstacles they have to overcome daily, especially to access to education. The lack of documents that certify the degree boys, girls and adolescents have obtained at Colombian schools hinders the process of incorporation to Venezuela’s educational system. Once they manage to solve this first obstacle, they face the obstacle to get the elementary or the high school certified transcript unless they have been recognized as refugees by the Venezuelan Estate. Thence, the young victims of the forced displacement find that they can only study up to the last year at elementary or high school depending on the entrance age to the education system. This situation has led to children’s school leaving early, since in many cases, for both parents and children an educational process that cannot progress has no sense, and therefore, children become part of the child labor at a very early age. In cases of children who have returned to Colombia, it occurs the same, and thus, it doubles the damage to children and makes difficult their full enjoyment of their right to education in both sides of the border. This means that, even though children have studied in Venezuela, they cannot prove their studies when they return to Colombia (a grown woman, interview, Arauca, 2012; and Ramirez, 2013).

99” Cases of girls that were sexually abused by alleged members of the Public Force in Tame (Arauca) were reported in last October. First, a woman from the suburb Caño Camame reported that a soldier had sexually abused her 13 year-old daughter. A few weeks later, people from the suburb Flor Amarillo, found on a grave the bodies of José Alvaro Torres’ three children: two boys and a girl at the ages of 6,9 and 14. The examination to the bodies showed that the little girl had been sexually abused. Researchers did DNA tests using the semen found in both victims of abuse and compared it with the semen of several soldiers who had been patrolling the area. Results of the tests showed that the semen belonged to the sub-lieutenant Raúl Muñoz Linares, who served for the Mobile Brigade 5 of the Army” (Marín , A, 2011, February, Another case of sexual abuse in Tame (Arauca), El Espectador, recovered on April, 2nd 2014, in:

1 Colombian Family Welfare Institute.

2 United Nations High Comissioner for Refugees

Translation: Carolina Olivero